Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

I didn’t need those paragraphs anyway. Or that chapter.

My zero drafts are a mess. Too many words, too much explaining, some really obvious character slips, the occasional monologue*…it’s not pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why it’s a zero draft: so I can edit it and make it pretty.

Most of the energy in making the second draft–or, as I call it–the Working Draft–goes into cutting. Getting rid of the crap so I can see what I’ve actually made. Making the writing flow better so that the story comes out without the writing getting in the damn way.

If you want to picture how I edit, imagine a sentient woodchipper and Edward Scissorhands had a mechanized baby that loves red pens and slash-and-burn deforestation.

But how do I know what to get rid of? What gets tossed into my whirring mechanical maw, and what passes by, unnoticed for today?

Simple. There’s a list.

Here are my top picks for how to make your writing go down smoother than the Skittle vodka your cousin made that time.**

1) Kill the passive voice. For a refresher:

“The sundae bar was burned by the fire-breathing velociraptor.” (Passive) [edited: thanks for the catch, sucoletta!}

“The firebreathing velocipraptor burned everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” (Active)

A good hint to discern whether you’re writing passive voice is the use of ‘was’ and its confederates. Changing to active not only makes the writing smoother–less crap to get in the way–it also wastes less words. Which is important if you’re writing to spec.

2) Murder the qualifiers. Here’s a partial list:

very, kinda, sort of, massively, intensely, insanely, a small amount, a vast amount, partially, a little, a bit, a lot…

God, I could just keep going.

In 99% of cases, these add nothing to the sentence they infest like ticks on a monkey’s ass. Degrees can much more elegantly be conveyed if they’re necessary. Leaving you with nothing but clean, useful monkey ass.

However, I’m not from the school of thought that says you should never have adjectives. But only use the ones you need. “Glanced quickly” is not only redundant, it’s wasteful. CUT.

3) Suffocate your desire to explain everything. Go back and read Wednesday’s post (bonus: contains strippers) and remember: showing is generally better than telling. And explaining, whether it’s done by the narrative or by a character, is boring. Not to say that you shouldn’t explain anything, but do so with a light hand.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to the alternative world stuff you’ve made that your are very proud of. Think twice before having characters explain their motivations. One, it should be evident already. Two, no one likes to listen to a bunch of self-justifying crap.

This is the biggest one for me. In the zero draft, I’m generally working out the reasons for things as I go, and they end up coming out of some character’s mouth. On the next pass, I edit that crap out. After all, I already know it, and, for the most part, the reader doesn’t need to. And what they do need to know can be presented in a far more subtle way.

I’m always looking for that new edge, so: what are your tricks? What do you cut out of your zero draft?

*I’ve started leaving a line from The Incredibles as my editing comment: “You caught me monologuing!”

**Taste the rainbow. The burning, chemical rainbow.

 

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4 thoughts on “Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

  1. Actually this sentence: “The firebreathing velociprator was burning everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” Is NOT in the passive voice, because the action is happening. Had you written “The fire-breathing velociraptor (correct spelling) was burned.” THAT would be passive. Just the mere word “was” does not mean it’s passive. Here’s a great article that explains passive voice like no other: file:///home/chronos/u-6adb026a6f4888d6c7a6209e2fb11248c8c68c13/Downloads/The%20Passive%20Voice%20%E2%80%94%20Medium.mhtml

    • Thanks for catching my derp. I have edited the entry (and credited you, of course).

      Lesson: when you think “maybe I should read today’s post over one more time”, you should. You really should.

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